By now, many high school seniors have received financial aid offers from colleges. But far too many families think that means they’re done with the aid search.
It’s not over until it’s over, as the famous scholar Yogi Berra once said. Plenty of opportunities to reap aid are still possible, but you’ll have to take many more swings at money that’s available though not widely advertised.
About seven in 10 of students surveyed by the Project on Student Debt had outstanding loans upon graduation averaging nearly $28,000. I wonder how many of them took the time to seek out the thousands of potential aid opportunities that could have helped them graduate debt-free.
I knew of several students at our local high school who put their scholarship search into overdrive around acceptance time. They were rewarded with thousands of dollars. My oldest daughter also devoted hours to grant applications and was pleasantly surprised.
The pool of scholarship money available to students every year is mammoth: The U.S. Department of Education and colleges award some $46 billion every year, according to debt.org. Plus, more than $3 billion is available through private sources. Some of that money goes unclaimed, but diligent students can remedy that if they spend the time in a focused search.
Here are five ways to go about it:
- Talk with your high school and college counselors. They usually have a list of local organizations that offer scholarships. Starting in junior year is better than waiting until the last minute in senior year.
- Go local. When my daughter started her search, I was surprised at the number of local groups that had money available. One of the most generous grants was awarded by an area real estate broker.
- Also check with local businesses, service organizations, religious groups, large employers and civic groups. Parents may even have scholarships available through their employers.
- Don’t forget to specifically ask for merit aid from the colleges you’ve been accepted to because they can often be the biggest source of assistance. Just remember that you have to probe deeply. Many programs aren’t advertised and may be offered by departments or to students who have special qualifications. It also helps if a college has a healthy endowment and is willing to part with some of their kitty for grant aid.
- You can streamline the process by using online scholarship search engines. One of my favorites is Fastweb.com, but also check out sites such as Cappex, Scholarships.com and Cheapscholar.org. They all do pretty much the same thing in locating grant opportunities locally and nationally.
Local, regional and state grants abound, although most parents don’t know about them. Here’s some great advice from Universityparent.com, which we found to be true:
“Local scholarships are typically not as large as national ones, but the odds of winning are greater. Besides, 10 small scholarships can add up to the amount of one large one. Start the search early in high school so that when senior year comes around, you will have a list of potential local scholarship opportunities ready to go.”
Keep in mind that most grants have no connection with a family’s financial situation. So if you think you won’t qualify for college-based aid, ramp up your search with private sources.
Having said that, always apply for financial aid, which means filing the FAFSA form and any additional college aid applications. You may be able to garner some assistance, despite your family’s income. Colleges will give you a break, for example, if your family has several children in college at once or special adverse financial situations are on the horizon, such as a layoff or other loss of income.
Note that with additional scholarships, you’re searching for “merit” versus “need-based” aid, so you won’t have to deal with extensive financial forms. You may qualify based on where you live, academics, athletic or other special talents.
One college may be willing to offer scholarships to bassoon players, while another wants to round out its cross-country team. Some awards are based on religious and ethnic affiliations and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) talent. It also helps, in many cases, if you can write an honest essay in your own voice.
Why bother with scholarships in small amounts? They all add up, and your out-of-pocket for college -- books, travel, food, miscellaneous expenses -- can be a real financial burden.
Every dollar counts when trying to cover an ever-growing bill, so your homework will be rewarded. One of my daughter’s classmates managed to cover all of her expenses with outside scholarships. It was well worth her effort to graduate debt-free.